Indian Ocean: Maritime Security


By Prof. Gamini Keerawella

Professor Emeritus, University of Peradeniya and

Executive Director, Regional Center for Strategic Studies

(Excerpts of the keynote Address delivered by Prof. Keerawella recently at the Inauguration Ceremony of the Academic Programmes- 2018 of the Bandaranaike Center for International Studies)

(Continued from yesterday)

Preeminence of India in naval diplomacy in the Indian Ocean primarily stems from its geography. The South Asian Peninsula projects into the Indian Ocean basin centrally linking the western and eastern planks of the ocean. It is re-imposed by its raid advances in military technology and acquisition of naval assets. India is ranked fourth in the Global Fire Power (GFP) ranking, based on each nation’s potential for conventional war-making capabilities across land, sea and air. The sustained economic growth of India since 1994 and the impressive progress in its high-tech industry and trade accelerated India’s transformation from a regional power to a great power at the dawn of the new century. Parallel to this development, India has made head way with its plan to build a full-fledged blue water navy. It proceeded in three areas: (i) on-shore infrastructure development, (ii) modernization of the Navy and acquiring naval assets, and (iii) new naval diplomacy. Acquisition of deeper blue water naval reach and punch by India is a crucial factor in the present maritime security architecture in the Indian Ocean.

Third and more importantly, more fundamental and systemic level change that is taking place slowly in global politics must be brought to focus. Since the emergence of modern international system, the center of gravity in global politics remainedin the west. The epicenter of global politics may have changed over time from the Iberian capitals to Amsterdam, Paris, London, Washington or Moscow. All were located geographically and conceptually in the West. Consequent to the economic and politico-strategic resurgence of Asia along with other changes in international politics, the center of gravity in global politics is gradually moving towards Asia Pacific.

Finally, if we don’t pay attention to another key aspect in the evolving maritime security, my presentation will be incomplete;the activities of non-state actors in the Indian Ocean and sources non-traditional maritime security threats. In this regard, activities of non-state actors such as piracy, maritime terrorism, gunrunning and the terror-crime nexus must receive our attention.

All these developments in the Indian Ocean maritime sphere are crucially important to a centrally located small island country like Sri Lanka. Three geo-strategic factors of Sri Lanka’s location and domestic politico-economic dynamics determine Sri Lanka’s approach towards the Indian Ocean maritime issues. These geo-strategic factors include:(i) a small island state; (ii) located in southern tip of South Asia; and (iii) strategically at center of the Indian Ocean linking its Eastern and Western flanks. Though these three factors are interrelated, each factor is important on its own. When it comes to policymaking process, however, the domestic political dynamics of the day prevail over the geostrategic factors. Unfortunately, strategic reading as to ‘definition of the situation’ is highly conditioned by domestic political compulsions rather than by geo-strategic considerations.

Hence, although the Indian Ocean always remained in the main orbit of Sri Lanka’s foreign policy and defense perspectives, the relative priority given to it in the foreign policy decision-making process varied from time to time depending on the interplay of the domestic and the international variables relevant to the formulation of Sri Lankan foreign policy at the time. In general, the objectives and priorities in the Sri Lankan foreign policy are set in relation to the three main geopolitical frames, namely the South Asian, the Indian Ocean and Global.

Irrespective of political Peace and stability in the Indian Ocean constitute a fundamental national interest of Sri Lanka as what happens in the water column around Sri Lanka affect her positively or negatively toa varying degree, depending on the gravity of the event. A single power domination of the Indian Ocean, may it be by India, China or the United States, is disadvantageous to Sri Lanka’s national interests. As history has taught us many a time, when a political power comes forward to dominate the Indian Ocean unilaterally, Sri Lanka’s sovereignty and independent action is highly curtailed. It must be noted that China’s blue-water naval entry into the Indian Ocean and its diplomatic overtures to the Indian ocean littoral has enhanced Sri Lanka’s strategic significance before India and the United States.In order to make use of the opportunities presented in this context, Sri Lanka needs handle the situation with sharp diplomatic skills with a clear strategic plan and vision. We should be conscious of the opportunities as well as pitfalls.

Sri Lanka must set its priorities carefully. A new naval cold war of any form in the Indian Ocean would adversely affect Sri Lanka’s national interests. The history of Sri Lanka since 1500 AD is replete with experiences of falling prey to great power naval rivalry in the Indian Ocean. Hence, possibility of developing naval rivalries among new blue-water naval powers and resultant competitive naval deployment by these powers is a grave concern to Sri Lanka. The presence of a number of actors and the multi-balance of forces in the Indian Ocean better serve our interests.

Any competitive naval-strategic developments in the Bay of Bengal would remain a particular concern for Sri Lanka. Any SSBN competition involving India and China in the Bay of Bengal will have serious political and strategic implications for Sri Lanka. In this context, what Sri Lanka can do is to use its good relations with the two Asian giants to initiate diplomatic moves to prevent them from moving towards a new naval cold war in the Bay of Bengal andto initiate diplomatic moves to deescalate SSBN competition between India and China in the Bay of Bengal.

Sri Lanka must take due note of the fact that the United States is the only superpower in the Indian Ocean. In many areas, both countries share a community of interests. Freedom of navigation in the Indian Ocean is a definite common interest. The security of sea-lanes of communication is a prime national interest of Sri Lanka, which we share with US. In addition, a larger share of our export market is still in the West with 27 % of total exports going to the US and another 27% to EU. It is important to avoid the strategic trap of aligning with one camp in impending naval cold war in the Indian Ocean. ‘Pragmatic Balance’ with a clear sense of our national interest must be our policy line. Any form of long-term strategic alignment would not serve our national interests in the long run.

The term ‘the Asian Century’ has become a common cliché to describe the 21st century in the context of the emergence of China and India as global powers and the high growth rate of other Asian economies. However, the concept of ‘Asian Century’ could be realized only by economic and strategic cooperation among the Asian powers in general and between the two Asian giants in particular. The economic and socio-political progress of the region is highly dependent on the peace and stability of the Indian Ocean. Further, the progress of the world economy is also integrally linked to the progress of the Asian economies around the Indian Ocean.

In the present crucial phase of Indian Ocean strategic developments, Sri Lanka cannot remain as an observer. India is now a blue-water power on the doorstep. China is a blue-water naval power in the close vicinity. Both are aspiring global powers. The United States is the superpower in the Indian Ocean. Hence, delicate balancing and smart managing of relations with the three main naval powers with a strategy of equidistance is a national priority. In balancing these keythree relations, Sri Lanka could bring her traditional links with other actors in the region to leverage a wider diplomatic and strategic space for Sri Lanka. Our historic relations with Japan, Australia and South Africa as well as with Pakistan, Bangladesh, Iran, Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand can be cashed in the Indian Ocean maritime diplomatic market to our advantage at appropriate junctures. For Sri Lanka, diplomacy is the first of defense.It is the last line of defense.

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